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Detective Trapp, Part 1: Women go missing, and police are slow to act

Christopher Goffard, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

After a night of ragged sleep, a woman who solved murders woke before dawn in her red-tile suburban home and padded across the hardwood floor to her closet. She thought hard about the right color to put on. What do you wear to interview a serial killer?

It was the first of a thousand calculations Anaheim Police Detective Julissa Trapp would have to make that day. For some, she would follow the advice of the Homicide Investigation Manual, or of the small army of local detectives and state investigators and FBI agents who would watch her work.

Many other decisions would be unconscious or instinctive or hard to fully explain.

Trapp was 37, a veteran detective. She had entered this case a month earlier, when she stood beside the body of a young woman at a trash-sorting plant. Since then, she had walked between her city's cheap stucco motels, studied trash routes and sent teams chasing suspects from Oklahoma to Oakland.

There had been dozens of dead ends ... and then one improbable fingerprint that led them to the door of an innocent man, who led them to an alley, which made them gamble on an idea that had initially seemed crazy ... and suddenly she was at the center of a case involving 75 cops from seven agencies.

And now, on Day 29 of the case, it would come down to this: A detective. A killer. A windowless 8-by-10 room. A psychological duel that demanded as much instinct as training, and might require her to surrender more of herself than most cops were prepared to give.

At stake was more than a confession. This might be Trapp's last chance to learn the fates of three missing women, and, if they were dead, to find out where their bodies were and bring them home.

The detective had missing persons of her own, and she carried them everywhere, inked on her skin, confronting her every time she got dressed. They were represented by four small black birds, tattooed in a straight line under her collarbone. They were swallows -- the bird that carries souls. Each bird was an unhealable wound from which she did not wish to escape, but also an image of hope.

Today Trapp was searching for the right persona to confront a man who killed women and threw them away like litter. When she was assigned to sex crimes, she had worn pink. It was a useful disguise, because it made her seem exactly what she was not: pliant and harmless.

For this adversary, she thought it was important to look approachable but also to project strength. She did not want to appear soft. Pink wouldn't do. She found an emerald green blouse. Green seemed like a strong color. She put it on, over the swallows, and grabbed her badge.

When Julissa Trapp drives through her hometown of Anaheim, it feels to her like "one big crime scene." Every street leads to the site of a remembered stabbing or shooting or chase, to close calls and hard lessons, to dead-eyed killers and inconsolable mothers.

It's a mental map of what the jaded call "Anacrime," the crowded city of 350,000 that encircles Disneyland. It's a map of long business strips that sprang up more than half a century ago and were sidelined by history, the wide boulevards dotted with disappearing relics of indigenous California weirdness -- space-age car washes, gaudy neon signage, kitschy theme motels.

It's a map of neighborhoods that tourists avoid, of blocks menaced by gangs and shadow economies fueled by drugs and sex, of pay-in-cash motels with cages on the night windows where resident families splash in tiny pools hard by the parking lot.

Of course, all of this shares a geography with Trapp's most personal memories, and some of her happiest. Down that street is the little yellow house where she grew up, and down that one is where she first pulled her gun. Over there is her elementary school, and here is where she patrolled in her 20s -- a pixie-haired cop so small at 5-foot-3 that she had to sit on a phone book to see over the steering wheel of the Chevrolet Caprice they assigned her.

Down that way is La Palma Park, where as a rookie she came upon a guy out past curfew. He asked her age and said, "Isn't it past your curfew?" Over there is where she chased a gunman through a series of backyards and gave the wrong block when she radioed for backup, causing a sergeant to bark: Was she trying to get herself killed? She drove up and down the streets and memorized them to ensure it never happened again.

She applied to homicide, and was turned down, four times. After one rejection she asked a senior officer, "What do I need to do to get there?"

He told her to get experience in gangs, family crimes or sex crimes. She worked all three. In sex crimes, she won detective of the year. In gangs, her partner rode alongside her in silence for weeks, the implicit message being: Prove you belong here.

She got to homicide in 2010, on her fifth try, and won detective of the year again. She did not feel instantly accepted. She looked like the antithesis of a grizzled murder cop, with a kind face, soft features and freckles on her cheeks, but she had a reputation as brash.

"If you haven't secured my crime scene, I'm going to let you know that I'm not happy about it," she would say. "If you spit seeds in my crime scene, you're going to hear about it."

Once, at the scene of an 8-year-old's shooting death, she snapped at a male sergeant who didn't seem to have a single useful thing to tell her: "What do you know?"

A male lieutenant pulled her aside to say her manner of speaking wasn't appreciated. She hadn't violated any policy. They were just talking about that elusive and subjective thing, "tone." It wasn't the last time.

"Ultimately telling me to 'chick up' a little bit," she would say. "I'm like, 'That's not my style.' I've got to throw in a 'please' 'cause I'm a girl?" One of her favorite TV shows was "The Closer," about a female detective who often bruised colleagues' egos en route to winning spectacular confessions.

"The tone thing" became kind of a joke among her partners, like J.D. Duran, who is the longest-serving homicide detective at the Anaheim PD. Of the 43 partners he's had in his 22 years there, she's one of just three women. He and Trapp have a pact that if unnatural death befalls one of them, the other will take the case, which is pretty close to the highest compliment a murder cop can pay another.

She developed some nicknames, like Hurricane Julie, which referred to the force she became in the thick of a case, and The Cape, because she flapped around like one, trying to hang on to the neck of a suspect twice her size who objected to his arrest.

Duran said Trapp has still another nickname: British Julie, a character who smiles through her teeth while carefully enunciating syllables of biting disapproval in the direction of, say, the beat cop spitting sunflower seeds at her crime scene.

The women who began disappearing from the streets of Santa Ana in fall 2013 did not come to Trapp's attention for months. She would come to know their life stories intimately, and for years their faces would stare at her from the corkboard beside her cubicle. She kept them there, to remind herself that her work wasn't done.

They were mothers and daughters, friends and sisters, aunts and wives. By law enforcement logic, they were also in a line of work -- street-level prostitution -- that put them in a certain category: a population prone to drift and disappear and reappear somewhere else.

Kianna Jackson disappeared on Oct. 6. She had just turned 20. She had grown up in Northern California's logging country, left home in her late teens and had been living in Las Vegas with a man her family came to believe was a pimp. She had just taken a Greyhound bus to Santa Ana.

Her mother, Kathy Menzies, reported her missing to the Santa Ana Police Department when she didn't hear from her for a few days. The man who answered the phone looked up Jackson's record and found she'd previously been arrested for prostitution. "Prostitutes work circuits," he said, which meant they cycled from city to city.

Menzies tried to make him understand -- her daughter wouldn't just disappear. She called or texted regularly. Menzies contacted the Orange County morgue and every hospital she could get the number of. She called the Motel 6 where her daughter had been staying. Jackson had left her things in her room and never returned.

Weeks passed, and her mother's panic and desperation grew. At the Santa Ana PD, it was not considered a high-priority case. The department got nearly 100 missing persons reports a month, many of them runaways who quickly turned up. At the time, the department had just one full-time missing persons investigator, a civilian.

It would be months before police got a warrant for Jackson's cellphone records to determine where it had last pinged.

In the meantime -- 18 days after she went missing -- a second woman disappeared.

This was Josephine Monique Vargas, 34, who stayed with family when she wasn't at a Red Roof Inn with her husband. Her nickname was "Giggles" because her laugh was irrepressible, even in church. She had a crack cocaine habit, and had lost her children to child protective services. She worked the area around 1st Street.

The family was having a backyard barbecue one afternoon when Vargas announced she would walk up to the 98-cent store to buy some napkins. She never returned.

Her sister, mother and husband went to the Santa Ana police to file a report. Months passed before detectives got her cellphone-location records.

Nineteen days after Vargas' disappearance, 37 days after Jackson's, Martha Anaya disappeared. She was 27, a local woman with two daughters. One of them, Melody, who was 12 at the time, would recall that money was always tight, but they had inexpensive season passes to Knott's Berry Farm, where they went twice a month to ride roller coasters and eat carne asada fries.

Melody was anxious about whether they could pay the rent and buy her schoolbooks, but her mother tried to reassure her: She'd find a way. When Melody asked her what she did for money, her mom said "the government" and pointed to her bad knee.

"Whenever she needed help spelling something she would always tell me, she's like, 'Why do I need Google if I have you? You like know everything,'" Melody would recall. "So she would always make me feel good about myself. She would always make me feel smart and she knows I'm going to be something. She always told me, 'When I'm old you better take care of me.'"

One day, her mother didn't come home. She wasn't texting. She wasn't calling. Melody thought maybe she hadn't paid her phone bill. But more time passed with no word, and she knew something was wrong.


When they went to the police, the family says, they got the same answer the other families got: The missing woman had a record for prostitution, and it wasn't unusual for prostitutes to drop off the grid for a while.

Herlinda Salcedo, Martha Anaya's mother, asked for a meeting with the Santa Ana police chief and pleaded for his help. She says she was told that her daughter was probably enjoying herself in Las Vegas.

That chief has since left the Santa Ana PD. "Unfortunately, the factors associated with these victims' lifestyles made it difficult to determine whether these females were missing on their own accord or the victims of foul play," the department said in a recent statement.

Over in Anaheim, Detective Julissa Trapp was busy with her own caseload. Her city got about a murder a month. She was not aware of the missing women in Santa Ana until late in 2013, when she turned on the news. The mothers were posting flyers and going street to street asking if anybody had seen them, begging police to take it seriously.

Trapp would remember thinking it was odd. But it would be months before her story and theirs collided.

The downtown headquarters of the Anaheim Police Department is a red-brick building that cops call the Barn, and it has been a second home for Trapp for most of her life. She's been showing up there since she was 15-year-old Julie Rios, Police Explorer Badge #8, an Anaheim girl trying to learn her radio signs and begging for ride-alongs. She was a cadet at age 20, working the walk-in counter, and a sworn officer at 21.

At the moment she's the only woman in her department's eight-person homicide unit. Off duty, she drinks the most expensive whiskey she can afford, and likes to throw axes. Occasionally, she swims with sharks off the coast of La Jolla. She's a devout Catholic who prays at every meal and goes to Mass faithfully.

One of her favorite expressions is "There's no crying in homicide," which is more often abbreviated as, "No crying in homi."

She says it a lot, maybe because more than some of her colleagues, she needs to. With every murder, a cop must strike some balance between caring and coldness, between empathy for the victim and the clinical detachment required to solve the case.

In Trapp, it's a vivid contest. Her supervisor, Sgt. Jeff Mundy, says she's different from a lot of detectives in that she works cases from a personal connection, the kind others avoid because it would eat them up. She refers to victims by first name and calls their families on birthdays and anniversaries. For everyone whose face goes on her corkboard, she buys a rosary.

Trapp's parents are from Zacatecas, Mexico. Her mother cleaned other people's houses and kept their own immaculate. Her father had little education when he came to the United States in his teens. He was a gardener, dishwasher, shoe polisher, night porter, busboy and finally -- by the time he retired -- a banquet manager supervising 175 people at the Anaheim Hilton.

In the early 2000s, when she was still Julissa Rios, the Anaheim Police Department gave her a new partner, a burly SWAT cop of German ancestry. They rode in icy silence.

He had heard she was abrasive and tough to work with, and now he thought: Good Lord, she's cocky. She thought: Damn, he's full of himself. One day when she was sore from a recent surgery, he offered to carry her equipment bag to the car. Then they were friends, and then she was in love with Eric Trapp and had his surname.

She was an Anaheim girl with parents from Mexico, and he was a surfer from Newport Beach, so it was fun to bring him to her uncle's farm in the Inland Empire and introduce him to pajarete, a drink that combined cocoa powder, tequila and a jet of milk right from the goat's udder.

They were both foodies, and made lavish five-course meals for friends, the kind of couple who don't just cook dinner but Create a Menu. They were a whirling duet with Le Creuset cookware and a kitchen patter right out of the squad car: Who's the primary on the rack of lamb and who's the backup? "Jules, hand me that pan." "Stand by."

She was in her early 30s and still working gangs when they decided to start trying to have children. Her dad had been one of nine, and her mom, one of 20, would tell her, "Mija, you shouldn't wait."

When it didn't work, and still didn't work, she began to feel as if police work was specifically designed to punish her: All day long she found herself in the company of gangbangers and dope fiends who had no idea how to care for their kids and didn't seem to want them, kids they left with broken arms and cigarette burns.

"Anyone I ran into who had a child and didn't see the child as this amazing gift," she would say, "it pissed me off."

Trapp found it hard to figure out God's plan for her. Every tweaker can get pregnant, but not me? They're able to do this basic thing, and I can't? When she talked about her trouble conceiving, friends became accustomed to a tone of bitter irony: Maybe if I was on meth ...

Her mother thought maybe it was the stress of chasing gangsters all day, and insisted she see a sobadora, or fertility masseuse. It didn't help.

Trapp researched her church's stance on in vitro fertilization. The Catechism of the Catholic Church called artificial insemination "morally unacceptable," but the department chaplain reassured her that she'd be doing God's will by building a family.

She endured a physically taxing, emotionally draining gantlet of needles and doctor's visits. Needles in her stomach, to make the follicles grow. Needles of progesterone in her backside, self-administered twice a day, till she was covered with bruises.

The doctors retrieved her eggs, fertilized them and implanted them. She got pictures of the growing embryo. The pregnancy failed. They tried another doctor, and this time she carried to eight weeks. She went into her bedroom closet with a bottle of tequila and raged at God.

The maddening, hard-to-fathom disconnect between effort and result was not the least of the insults to her view of the universe and her place in it. Didn't her whole career prove the link between obsessive focus on a problem and the conquering of it?

"In life, when you hit a roadblock, you go around it," she would say. "There's always a way."

Trapp remembered the nights she came home from the police academy with her arms bleeding from the cinder-block wall she was expected to climb, and how she eventually willed herself over it.

She liked to be in control, but the world of IVF stripped away every illusion of it.

It was hard to be around friends with kids. She went to a baby shower and headed straight for the bar. She did not like this embittered version of herself. She didn't like how people felt the need to tiptoe around the subject.

She was in homicide about a year when they tried again. The needles, the implantation, the pictures. She stayed home on bed rest, crocheting a baby blanket.

Looking through baby-name books, they decided that if it was a girl, she'd get to pick the name. A boy, and Eric would pick, provided her mother could pronounce it. She heard a heartbeat, but carried for just 10 weeks. She went into the closet again. It felt as though a basic compact with her creator had been broken.

By then the Trapps had spent $100,000, pretty much their entire savings. Eric was willing to borrow if she wanted to try again. But she was tired of feeling like a failure, and of being angry all the time. They talked about being foster parents, with an eye toward adopting, but she had friends who had to give up their foster kids and she was sure that would hurt too much.

She had always been dedicated to her job, her grim and unique task in the universe, but it acquired a new meaning now. She wanted to be a mother, but now she thought, Maybe that is not who I am going to be. Maybe I am the woman who finds answers for other mothers.

On the Friday morning in March 2014 that Trapp's life became permanently entwined with the missing women in Santa Ana, she was in Anaheim doing something she relished: standing before a roomful of students.

She was telling excited seventh-graders about the details of fingerprint collection, explaining how the forensics team used Super Glue to seal prints. She hoped to inspire some of the kids to consider police work.

Her buzzing cellphone interrupted her talk about 11:15 a.m. A text from the homicide-squad secretary. She looked at it and cut her talk short. She thanked the students, politely excused herself and walked swiftly to her car.

The text told her to get to Republic Waste Services on North Blue Gum Street. It said: "Possible human remains."

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